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“If you are listening to this, you are the resistance” — Josh Reviews Terminator: Salvation

Bottom line on Terminator: Salvation — It’s not as good a Terminator movie as I would have hoped for, but don’t believe the reviews, it’s not nearly the catastrophe you’ve been lead to believe it is.

Ever since James Cameron’s original masterpiece The Terminator (made in 1984, can you believe it??), we’ve been teased by glimpses of the post-Judgment Day future war against the machines.  With Terminator: Salvation, we’re finally being given a movie that is set entirely (except for a short prologue) in this post-apocalyptic world.  

The year is 2018, and things are looking pretty grim for mankind.  Most surviving humans are just focused on their own survival, but several small, rag-tag groups of resistance fighters are attempting to fight back against the machines.  John Connor is amongst them, but while his mother’s messages to him have provided him with valuable guidance, this John Connor has not yet become the leader of the resistance (nor has he sent his buddy Kyle Reese back in time).  Reese, meanwhile, is not yet a member of the resistance — he’s just a tough teenager trying to survive.  While Connor and Reese get a lot of screen-time, surprisingly, neither one of them is really the main character of the film.  That would be death-row inmate Marcus Wright, who signs his body over to Cyberdyne systems in 2003 and then wakes up in 2018 in a Skynet lab.

The way I see it, the film has three major weaknesses:

1.  Clearly this is a film written with the intention of focusing on a new character (Marcus Wright).  But when Christian Bale signed on to play John Connor, his role was significantly expanded.  The result is a movie that is split rather unevenly between those two characters and their storylines.  The film aspires to be an epic war-movie, telling multiple interweaving stories… but instead winds up losing the audience’s focus by not giving us a clear character in whose story we can emotionally invest.  Similarly to the way I can watch J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie and see clearly the way the character of old Spock was shoe-horned into the movie (Imagine that movie’s plot without old Spock — it would be NO DIFFERENT.   Kirk gets ejected onto the ice planet, finds Scotty, and utilizes Scotty’s engineering expertise to get himself beamed back to the Enterprise), I can clearly see how this film was not originally intended to focus on John Connor.  That explains why, despite Connor being in a lot of action scenes, he doesn’t have any real story-line in the film.  This isn’t a movie about his rise to the leadership of the rebellion, or about him running away from or facing up to his destiny — those ideas are hinted at, but not focused on in any way (in contrast to the tremendous character growth of Sarah in the first Terminator film and young John in the second).  The split focus really hobbles the film.

2.  As with the other two big summer blockbusters I have seen so far this month (Star Trek and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), this movie is hobbled by its script.  I just addressed the major structural problem, but there are also a ton of major plot holes (for instance, I counted about 10 times in which any slightly-intelligent machine could have easily killed John or Kyle, thus ensuring Skynet’s victory), as well as lot of little scenes and moments that just don’t work (the “I want to cuddle” scene between Marcus and resistance pilot Blair Williams being particularly atrocious).  

3.  I cannot recall another movie in recent memory that was so spoiled by its marketing campaign.  What is supposed to be a major plot twist half-way through the film has been revealed in every single trailer for this film.  Now, granted, that plot twist wasn’t particularly twisty (I’d imagine that anyone who has ever seen a Terminator movie before would be able to guess what’s coming once Marcus wakes up in a Skynet facility in 2018), but still.  Any drama that MIGHT be found in Marcus’s story-line is totally gone because we all knew exactly what is really going on with him.

Wow, that all sounds pretty bad!  Didn’t I say that I rather liked this film?

Indeed I did!  Let’s focus on the positives:

1.  The action scenes are as good as you’d hope for.  There are several extended sequences (an assault on a Skynet facility at the beginning of the movie; Marcus and Kyle’s race from and battle with an enormous Harvester machine; and of course the climactic assault on Skynet) and they’re all pretty magnificent — energetic and in-your-face.  I’m sure there was a lot of CGI used, but the film’s action sequences have a gritty, real-world feel to them that is more reminiscent of Mad Max than, say, The Matrix.  And that is a very good thing/

2.  The Terminators look great and are dangerous and scary again.  (I sort of liked the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show, but after two years of that I was getting really frustrated by how easy-to-kill the Terminators on that show seemed to be.  The ones here really seem menacing.)  I also really liked the various different robot designs.  From the trailers that highlighted the enormous Harvester robot, I was worried that the robots in this film would all look too much like Transformers, but that wasn’t the case.  I was particularly pleased by all the great T-800 action in the film’s final half hour.  Great stuff.  (Though John Connor’s innards should have been pulped after getting punched by one of those things…)

3.  The cast was surprisingly solid.  They’re all short-changed by the script, but despite that I thought everyone acquitted themselves well.  No surprise, Christian Bale gives good bad-ass as the grizzled John Connor.  Newcomer Sam Worthington is also compelling and likable as Marcus Wright (making his scenes watchable despite the fact that, as noted above, I had almost zero interest in his character’s predictable story-line), and Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the new Star Trek film — the kid is having the summer of his life) absolutely knocks it out of the park as Kyle Reese.  

4.  I’ll be coy here just in case you managed to avoid being spoiled about the surprise CGI reprisal of an old character (news of which has been all over the internet and the mainstream press for months now), but I absolutely LOVED this.  Even knowing this was coming I was surprised and tickled by the appearance, and I thought the CGI looked dynamite.  

5.  I have bashed the heck out of the script, but let me pay the writers one compliment: they manage to do a great job of incorporating a lot of the classic Terminator lines into this film in fun, organic, and surprising ways.  This sort of thing can be painful and awkward if done wrong, but I was really pleased at the way these moments were woven into the film.

There are a lot of other things that I really liked, such as the inclusion of a familiar voice coming from John Connor’s tape recorders.  I also have plenty of other complaints, such as my disappointment that, with the exception of the opening credits, the film’s score didn’t really use any of Brad Fiedel’s classic Terminator music (in contrast to the way Bear McCreary has cleverly woven those themes into his scores for the Sarah Connor Chronicles).  But I’ve probably already devoted more words to this film than it really deserves.

In the end, I feel almost exactly the same about this film as I did about the last installment, 2003’s Terminator 3.  It’s not anywhere close to the masterpieces that James Cameron’s first two films were, nor is it a franchise-ruining mess.  After reading all the dreadful reviews of this latest film, that almost feels like a win to me.  Still, I hope to someday be able to walk out of the screening of a new Terminator movie having once again recaptured the “Oh my god that was AWESOME!!” feeling of the first two films.

Maybe someday.

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